Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Site-specific Art: Robert Smithson, Ooldouz Alaei Novin, and the Marble House Project


What follows is a guest post by Shannon M. Mussett (Utah Valley University).

I am an academic philosopher. This means that my contact with my peers consists mainly in electronic communication, or, a few times a year (if I am lucky) a conference—varying in length from a day to a week. If I am very lucky, there may be an occasional workshop peppered here and there throughout the course of a decade.

Academic philosophy conferences consist largely of sitting in ill-lit rooms, on uncomfortable chairs, listening to someone either read a paper at you, or click through power point slides where the gist of the paper is presented to you. (Christy Wampole’s Conference Manifesto pretty much nails it). Afterwards, questions and dialogue follow—which can be more or less lively—depending on many factors, most of which boil down to how much coffee is available and whether or not people are in the pre-or post-lunch coma.

Not all conferences are the same.

Artists, however, do these amazing things called “residencies.” And let me tell you, they have the right idea. Instead of arriving with a finished (or mostly finished) product, they use the residency to develop something entirely new, or to work on something in its burgeoning phases. No one, that is, shows up with something polished. The thought of arriving at a conference with unfinished work is the stuff of nightmares to most academics.

Marble House, VT

I was fortunate enough to spend 3 ½ weeks at Marble House Project (MHP) in May-June 2017. The MHP is only in its third year but is already a thriving community based in artistic collaboration, sustainable farming, and a connection to the surrounding community of Dorset, Vermont. The mission of MHP is “founded on the belief that the act of creating, whether in the studio or in nature, is how human potential expands and community thrives.” Not only is that a nice idea, it’s incredibly successful in achieving its goal.

Marble House grounds

I was a bit of an outlier since, well, I’m not really an artist but a writer on art. Years ago, I took a sabbatical to write on Simone de Beauvoir, and instead fell down a totally different rabbit hole. Smirk all you want about Utah, but we have one of the most important works of art from the 20th century right in our back yard: Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork, Spiral Jetty.

Sticking out from the northeastern shore of the ancient remnants of Lake Bonneville, the Spiral Jetty endures a constant flux of environmental, human, and essential decay. The massive spiral composed of basalt rocks hauled in by bulldozers over the course of one week in 1970 is a performance of entropy, a force Smithson believed to be more originary than reason, order, and permanence. The rocks which compose the spiral are subjected to the brutal conditions of the Utah landscape, ranging from submersion for years under the saline sea, emersion into the harsh rays of the desert sun, and the chilling conditions of winter. In addition, thousands of people walk on and around it, rapidly contributing to the decomposition of the porous rocks. (I won’t lie, this latter force of “entropy” has become accelerated due to the paving of the road leading to the Jetty. Visitors have since multiplied exponentially, leading me to call it “Art Disneyland” the last time I was there. Considerations, perhaps, for another post).

The extreme conditions make the Jetty always appear differently, highlighting not only the inevitability of the workings of entropy on all objects and systems, but also the beauty and creativeness of deterioration.

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970)

I was particularly captivated by Smithson’s focus on entropy—what Gary Shapiro describes as that “radical alternative to evolutionary and progressive temporality,”[i] and how this notion expands not only into natural systems, but rational systems as well. The concept of entropy is far-reaching in the sciences and arts. Entropy can be found in the fields of information theory, life sciences, psychology, thermodynamics, chemistry, literature, art, economic theory, and philosophy.

Smithson’s own aesthetic understanding of entropy destabilizes faith in a progressive rationality that controls and dominates the irrational. He writes:

One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason. Vast moving faculties occur in this geological miasma, and they move in the most physical way. This movement seems motionless, yet it crushes the landscape of logic under glacial reveries. This slow flowage makes one conscious of the turbidity of thinking. Slump, debris slides, avalanches all take place within the cracking limits of the brain.[ii]

For Smithson, both nature and reason are in a constant state of blending and erosion. And in fact, much of his artwork—and in particular the Spiral Jetty—emphasizes not only the beauty in the progressive breakdown of systems but even, in fact, the primacy of formlessness over form.

Smithson believes that the possibility for aesthetic production and experience is often most fecund at sites of breakdown, urban decay, disruption, and displacement. This is why many of his Non-Sites (for examples, see here) often involved quarries, abandoned mines, and other places where technology has ravaged the land through processes of extraction. Using photographs, maps, and the detritus imported from the sites into the unlikely and somewhat antiseptic environment of the gallery, Smithson hoped to show one of the many ways the artist can mediate between “technology” and “nature.” In this way, he hoped to avoid an attitude of fatalism regarding industrialized devastation and the mythology of a return to nature unspoiled and untouched by human beings.

A dialectic between land reclamation and mining usage must be established. The artist and the miner must become conscious of themselves as natural agents … Art can become a resource, that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist … Ecology and industry are not one-way streets, rather they should be crossroads. Art can help to provide the needed dialectic between them.[iii]

Smithson’s art incorporates technology, geology, mathematics, paleontology, crystallography, and other sciences. His sculptures and earthworks display non-human shapes and designs: spirals, circles, steps, grids, mirrors, dirt, boxes, crates, scatterings, and piles. This strategy allowed Smithson to make not only aesthetically appealing pieces, but also ones that challenge us to rethink our understanding of “beauty.” Beauty often emerges from brokenness and displacement, not from order and belongingness.

Spiral Jetty, cross-section detail

Smithson’s site-specific earthworks lead me to contemporary considerations on the function and place of art. While at my residency, I met the artist, Ooldouz Alaei Novin, (whose work can be seen here and here) an Iranian mixed-media artist who thinks about issues of exile and assimilation. Although she came to Marble House with an entirely different project in mind, once on the property she decided to do a site-specific memorial.

Speaking of her work and MHP, Alaei Novin says:

I create memorials not for the dead, but for those who are alive but are suffering a collective pain. As a continuation of my art practice in the form of memorials, I created a site-specific installation that functions as a memorial for the living. The piece is mostly about us [Iranians] not being allowed to settle down. The challenges I’m talking about are the issues we have at home (including the revolution, war, sanctions, etc.) and the challenges we encounter in the US as Iranians (the hostage crisis, anti-Iranian sentiment, Islamophobia, and Trump’s travel ban). It is a memorial for a nation that has been banned from entering this country, despite the contributions it has made. And the reason I want it to be outdoors is that I want it to be exposed to various weather conditions—especially to the harsh winters of Vermont, as a metaphor for difficulties and problems Iranians have been through and are still struggling with.

Choosing a kind of site Smithson would have found intriguing, Alaei Novin first embarked upon a project in and around one of the abandoned quarries on the property, creating a work using mirrors as a tie to the architecture of Iran. Iran imported mirrors from European cities such as Venice as early as the 16th century. When the mirrors would arrive, they were often broken—shattered even—an idea that Alaei Novin emphasizes in her work on the relationship between her homeland and her current residence in the United States.

Alaei Novin at her first site

What to do with all that broken glass, you ask? Why, use them as tiles in your architecture, of course. Persian architecture in the Isfahan style used colored glass, tiles, and mirrors in ornate and vibrant ways (a remarkable example is Shah-e-Cheragh).

Alaei Novin’s use of broken and whole mirrors connects her art to Iran, but through disconnection, rather than inclusion. As she says, “the piece shows us how we are never at rest, never settled down. We are always displaced.”

However, due to the problems of access to the quarry, Alaei Novin had to abandon her project one-week into it. “Perfect!” I said. “Look how this process actually emphasizes your focus on the displacement of your people in the great migrations of Iranians out of Iran! The displacement of your art is merely a microcosm of the very phenomenon you want to highlight!” People love it when philosophers explain away their personal struggles with theory, so, on to the next iteration.

The second site Alaei Novin chose was a tree stump in the gardens. No worries there about broken mirrors and quarry access: the stump was in a central location, out in the open and therefore well-situated to reflect the sunlight that would bounce between reflective surfaces. Alas, this site was even more short-lived, as the stump was destined for future removal. “Even better!” I exclaimed. “Once again, the work on displacement is displaced!” Alaei Novin was, understandably, less enthusiastic about my profound insight.

Third time’s a charm. Alaei Novin found a final location in the woods and the staff helped her move a trunk from elsewhere on the property so that the mirrors (now morphed into shatterproof plexiglass) could still be positioned in the way she wanted them to be.

Alaei-Novin, work in progress

What she finally produced is reminiscent of Smithson’s Yucatan Mirror Displacements (1-9), but with her unique artistry and perspective.

I had decided that I was going to write about this site-specific work and its relationship to Smithson from almost day one of my residency. But as each displacement of her work occurred, my writing was also dislocated. I, too, was forced to readjust, rethink, and rework—thus mirroring the very mirror project as it underwent its transformations.

For instance, I wanted her to say things about displacement and dislocation, but she wanted to discuss the specific issues of war, sanctions, Islamophobia, and green cards—very concrete problems, with which she and her friends and family live. Now three years in the States, waiting for news (positive or negative) about an endlessly deferred green card (something I recently learned she did finally receive), Alaei Novin didn’t want her work to be an abstraction but a grounded, earthly reflection on the struggles Iranians have faced and continue to endure.

In our final week together, there were terrorist attacks in Tehran. Alaei Novin, caught between her desire to return home and her illusory green card, saw the worst of her fears realized in a rare attack in her home city. Everything her project was about suddenly snapped into razor-sharp focus. Stay or go? Neither choice seemed to be a concrete possibility.

Land art and site-specific art can never be dissociated from the social and political. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty may initially appear as a giant coil out in the middle of nowhere. In some senses, it is—it takes a commitment to visit it as the nearest town is Corinne, Utah. However, Smithson chose this specific point in the Great Salt Lake for more than one reason. Not only is there evidence of abandoned industry visible in the drive to the site, the Jetty is triangulated by two very noticeable places: The Golden Spike Museum which commemorates the meeting of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads on May 10, 1869, and the ATK Missile Facility which was involved in military and aerospace manufacturing actively at the time of the Smithson’s composition. Smithson’s work is therefore not apolitical. Even as it orients us to geological and cosmic (and thus inhuman) time, it is linked concretely to the monumental time of the Golden Spike museum (and all of its’ cheesy kitschiness) and to the innovation and destruction of human military technology which can obliterate human time in a second.[iv] The Jetty, wearing down over centuries, stands as a kind of silent witness to the rise and fall of human achievement and laughable sense of self-importance.

Alaei Novin’s finished piece captures the spirit of site-specific art. It too requires a journey to reach. It works in harmony and tension with its surroundings, thus evoking a profoundly moving aesthetic experience.


Alaei Novin, [finished piece], photo by Benjamin Heller

Alaei Novin’s piece is thus timely, political, and beautiful. It both blends into the forest and disrupts it. It welcomes the light and the trees, while simultaneously reflecting light and color away from itself. At places, it allows for the vegetation to thrive (including some “non-native” species she dug up and transplanted around the site) while preventing others from growing under a stifling black groundcover. The piece thus succeeds at being both fully at home, while also disrupted and displaced.

The significance of site-specific land art continues to claim us. Works such as the Spiral Jetty and Alaei Novin’s memorials to the living ask us to view the world from within our specific time and place, and also from those times and places in which we do not find comfort or familiarity. Such disruptive aesthetic experiences allow us to see the creative possibilities of rupture and breakdown. Given the state of our contemporary world crisis, such aesthetic experiences are of utmost necessity.

Alaei Novin, [finished piece], photo by Benjamin Heller

[i] Gary Shapiro, Earthwards, pg. 27.

[ii] From Smithson’s 1968 essay for Artforum, “A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects” found in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, pg. 100.

[iii] From an untitled piece, found in Collected Writings, 376

[iv] See Jennifer L. Roberts, “The Taste of Time: Salt and the Spiral Jetty” in Robert Smithson for more on Smithson’s choice of location in relation to the question of time.


Notes on the Author

dept. photo.jpg

Shannon M. Mussett is a Professor of Philosophy at Utah Valley University. She specializes in feminist theory, existentialism, German Idealism, and aesthetics. She publishes widely on the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel and the philosophy and literature of Simone de Beauvoir. She is co-editor of both Beauvoir and the History of Philosophy from Plato to Butler (SUNY Press, 2012) and The Contradictions of Freedom: Philosophical Essays on Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Les Mandarins’ (SUNY Press, 2006). Based on the work of Robert Smithson, she is currently writing a manuscript exploring the connection between entropic art and the history of philosophy.

Image credits: All images by the author unless otherwise noted.


  1. Excellent read. Thank goodness we have philosophers to explain to us the importance and meaning of art (seriously).

  2. This is incredible, Shannon. (Also, woo, Utah!)

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